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House Backs STEM Education Bill: Next Stop, White House

A bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act is making its way to President Obama's desk after the House today approved it by a vote of 228 to 130. The action comes after a bumpy ride for the legislation, which aims in part to promote STEM education. Many observers worried it might not make it this far. In the end, only 16 House Republicans supported the measure, although it was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate last Friday.

I have not yet gotten confirmation on whether President Obama will sign the legislation, but my sources tell me they've heard no indications that he's opposed. The president has certainly been a vocal champion of STEM education.

The bill contains a variety of provisions to improve education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, including one requiring greater coordination across federal agencies in their work to advance STEM education, and another that would make it easier for higher education institutions to participate in the Noyce teacher scholarship program. Also, a new program in the bill appears to be intended to help replicate the UTeach model of training math and science teachers.

STEM education is just one dimension of the broad-based legislation, which also supports scientific research and aims to foster innovation, especially in the development of new energy technologies. The core goal of the legislation is to help maintain the United States' economic competitiveness and scientific leadership. Here's a summary of the package.

"There is nothing that will have deeper, longer lasting, and more positive impact for our nation than this bill," Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said in a press release. "I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing, for what is likely my final act on this House floor after 26 years of service, than sending this bill to the president's desk." (Gordon is about to retire from Congress.)

But Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the top Republican on the science committee—and soon to be its chairman—voted against the bill, raising concerns in a press release over what he described as new unnecessary programs and a hasty process by which the Senate bill was brought to the House floor for a vote.

"This measure continues to be far too expensive, particularly in light of the new and duplicative programs it creates," he said. "Further, we have not had the opportunity to give proper oversight to the programs we put in motion in the first COMPETES before authorizing new, additional programs."

Rep. Hall and many other House Republicans also voted against the original House bill last spring.

Despite the opposition of Rep. Hall and plenty of other Republicans, the bill appears to enjoy fairly widespread support, from groups ranging from the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable to the National Science Teachers Association, the American Chemical Society, and a host of universities.

In the end, the House essentially ended up agreeing to the Senate version of the bill, which observers say is considerably scaled back in terms of funding, programs authorized, and even its duration. The Senate bill reauthorizes the law for three years, compared with five in the House plan. Because of time constraints as the 111th Congress rapidly draws to a close, the House had little option but to either accept or reject the version passed in the Senate.

With all that said, let's turn to a few key provisions. (And keep in mind I've had little time to digest the plan.)

On the issue of better coordination across agencies (which is lacking, according to some recent national reports, including this one from a White House advisory board), the legislation calls for the creation of a White House panel to coordinate federal programs and activities in support of STEM education, including at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, and NASA.

I should mention here that when Obama was in the Senate, he was a lead sponsor of a bill intended to create mechanisms for federal agencies and the states to coordinate their STEM education strategies.

One new provision in the America COMPETES bill, championed by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, apparently is aimed at replicating the UTeach model, or at least programs along the lines of that approach. It would authorize $10 million per year, with funds issued on a competitive basis to universities to launch undergraduate programs to produce high-quality elementary and secondary STEM teachers.

The bill also contains a change to the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program aimed at making it easier for higher education institutions to participate, by lowering the financial match they are expected to make from 50 percent to 30 percent. The $55 million Noyce program encourages talented STEM majors and professionals to become K-12 math and science teachers.

As I noted in a story earlier this year, many of the STEM education programs in the law have never received a dime of federal aid. In recognition of that, at least some of those programs are deleted from the legislation this time around, including Math Now, a program initially authorized at $95 million per year that was intended to improve math instruction in the elementary and middle grades by providing teachers with research-based tools and professional development.

I chatted briefly this afternoon with Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, about the bill.

He admitted to some disappointment that Congress ended up going with the scaled back Senate version. But given the changing political climate in Washington—Republicans are about to hold a majority in the House come January—he said he was pleased to see a final bill pass.

"It's great to have something in support of science research and education," he said. "In this session, rushing up to the holidays, to be focusing on this bill is really terrific."

Finally, for those wondering, what the #$#!? does COMPETES stand for anyway? It's America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science." Now you know.

So, what did I miss? Please post comments with your own analysis or highlights.

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